readilearn: Celebrating individuals in your classroom using stories

  • Published on March 29, 2018


individual differences, diversity, inclusion, friendship, celebrating individuals in the classroom

While a classroom is filled with a group of unique individuals, it can be easy sometimes to get caught up in treating them as one, with one set of needs, expectations and rules: everybody do this, everybody do that—a bit like Simon Says but not always as much fun.

It is useful to pause sometimes and celebrate the uniqueness of individuals in your class.

International Children’s Book Day and Hans Christian Andersen‘s birthday on 2 April provide excellent excuses for reading and celebrating children’s literature, as if we needed any. We can also find stories that help us celebrate individuality.

The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen

Hans Christian Andersen was a prolific writer of fairy tales, many of which are well-known and have been made into movies. One of my favourite films as a child was about Hans Christian Andersen with Danny Kaye in the lead role. I was particularly touched by the story of The Ugly Duckling which Andersen told to a sad young boy with whom no one would play. You can watch the scene here.

The story is a great starting point for discussing individual differences, diversity, inclusion and friendship.

The Best Beak in Boonaroo Bay by Narelle Oliver

The Best Beak in Boonaroo Bay by Narelle Oliver is another that can initiate similar discussions. In this story, the birds of Boonaroo Bay begin to bicker about which bird has the best beak. Of course, they are unable to agree as each believes their own to be the best. The wise old pelican decides that the only way to settle the argument is with a contest. In each of the heats, a different bird is the winner. When the birds wonder how that can be, the pelican helps them realise that there is no “best”, that they are all winners with beaks designed perfectly for their use.

When discussing these and other stories with children, it is important to allow and encourage them to ask questions and to respond to the questions of others. Asking children for their responses to the story can instigate a range of questions, activate discussions about feelings, and help to develop compassion and empathy.

Avoid being the one to always ask the questions, especially those designed to lead children to your conclusions and opinions. You may be surprised at the children’s understanding and sensitivity if you allow them to voice their thoughts.

There is a famous saying, sometimes attributed, but not conclusively, to Einstein that goes like this:

“Everybody is a genius.  But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

if a fish was judged by its ability to climb a tree it wouldn't be a genius

The birds in Boonaroo Bay learned that lesson. Other allegories and fables based upon the same premise: that one should not be judged on abilities one does not possess, and that everyone should not be forced into the same mould; have been around for decades. In fact, one was written over a hundred years ago by Amos E. Dolbear of Tufts in 1898. It can be read in this article by The Quote Investigator.

It would be interesting to tell children the story The Animal School and hear the discussion that ensues. I’m sure it would be quite robust. This story was written in 1940 by George Reavis who was the superintendent of Cincinnati Public Schools at the time.

The foreword contains the following message from Char Forsten, Jim Grant, and Irv Richardson:

“Believe that children learn best when we, their teachers, develop and challenge their strengths and identify and nurture their weaknesses.”

In the story, the curriculum consisted of running, climbing, swimming, and flying. For ease of implementation, all animals were required to take all subjects. To ensure they passed all subjects, they were to spend more time on subjects in which they were weakest. Not surprisingly, the rabbit flunked swimming, the duck failed running, and the eagle couldn’t climb.

This statement is taken from the epilogue, also written by Char Forsten, Jim Grant, and Irv Richardson:

“As educators, we spend our entire careers affirming the fact that each student is a unique and individual learner. Mandatory assessments, achievement-test scores, and IQ screenings confirm this knowledge. We document, read about, attend conferences on, to teach to, and publicly acknowledge these very differences. But to what end? Despite indisputable results, many districts continue to mandate that educators teach the same curriculum in the same way to all students, regardless of ability.”

Sadly, in many instances, it appears little has changed. Do you agree?

The writers conclude saying:

“Remember: There is no one correct way to teach all children, but there is a correct way to teach each child: one at a time. If you know a policy maker, share with him or her a copy of this book.”

Remembering that this book was written in 1940, it seems it may not have been read by too many policy makers.

The Animal School by George Reavis a story about education

As the story is now in the public domain, I have provided a copy which is free for everyone to download and print here. It would be interesting to read it to children and find out what they think. It would be a great stimulus for writing persuasive text.

introducing new books to children guided reading shared book strategies

As we’re talking about reading and discussing stories with children, I have uploaded a new resource with suggestions for what to do when introducing a new book to children.

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    What you say here is very true, Norah. Most teachers aim an arrow in the middle of the abilities of a group of learners and the ones below don’t understand and the ones above lose interest. Most fortunately, both my boys are in fantastic schools. Greg’s caters for gifted children so he is kept on his toes and intellectually challenged while Michael’s is remedial and provides very small teaching therapy groups for the children.

    That’s wonderful about your boys’ schools, Robbie. I think you’ve mentioned before how fortunate they are. I always love to hear good stories like that. It makes me hopeful for our children and our future.

    Pressures to conform can be so overwhelming to children, especially those who want to please. It’s good to read books and have activities that honor children’s uniqueness. The quote about the fish explains why healthy individualism is important.

    Wanting to please through conformity can nip many a fine creative in the bud. The importance of honouring children’s uniqueness can’t be overstated. While a certain level of achievement is required in some areas, particularly maths and language, it is good to provide opportunities for children to excel in a range of areas in which they are interested.

    You have such talent for teaching creatively and effectively, Norah. I had nuns as teachers throughout my schooling, and back then, everyone was expected to learn in the same way. This started changing when I reached high school, and students began to enjoy learning. School studies should be a pleasure, not a chore. Another informative post, my friend ❤

    Thank you very much for your kind words, Tina. Sadly, it still occurs all too often: teachers teaching to year level expectations. It’s not always what the teachers want to do. It’s often thrust upon them by their employers. I’m pleased you discovered the joy of learning in your high school years. I totally agree that learning should be a pleasure, not a chore. The challenge should be at the just right level to keep us motivated to overcome the obstacles.

    You write so eloquently and really pinpoint was we need to know about working with children. Would love your mind when I have to think of resources with some of my reviews. You are so creative with your ideas.

    Thank you very much for your kind words, Patricia. I very much appreciate them. You do wonderfully well with your reviews. I have discovered many good books through reading them.

Please share your thoughts. I love it when you do.

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